Repressing Others: Not Only Dictators Do It

The Soviet Union used new “mental illnesses” for political repression.  People who didn’t accept the beliefs of the Communist Party developed a new type of schizophrenia. They suffered from the delusion of believing communism was wrong.  They were isolated, forcefully medicated, and put through repressive “therapy” to bring them back to sanity. [Source:, “Nonconformity and Freethinking Now Considered Mental Illness]

It’s not only governments who attempt to use mental health professionals for repression.

Psychotherapists such as myself regularly receive referrals on behalf of family members. “You’ve got to talk to my son. He isn’t planning the right career for himself.” Or, “My cousin talks too much. I think it’s a compulsive disorder. You must treat her right away.”

Or, “My spouse needs help.” What kind of help? It basically boils down to: “To agree with me more.”
Not all repression is political. The most barbaric kind of repression is, of course. But loved ones and family members seek to repress each other all the time. By “repress” I mean control, change, intimidate or otherwise attempt to manipulate a person to your liking.

I’m not denying that the family members or loved ones making this request are sometimes right. A loved one is caught up with a drug, alcohol or gambling problem. Another loved one is clearly squandering his life away. There is such a thing as objectively self-defeating or self-destructive behavior. Not everything is a matter of personal preference.

However, whether you’re right or not isn’t the point. The point is: If your friend or loved one doesn’t wish to change, or doesn’t see a problem with what he or she is doing, nobody will “treat” his way out of it.

Human beings are rational creatures. This doesn’t mean that people always act rationally. Reason, i.e. thinking, is a choice. If you’re willing to think, then many things are possible. If you refuse to think about a certain matter, nobody can make you.

This is what the Soviet Communists and other dictators fail to understand. They treat force as if it’s persuasion. They equate intimidation with reason. Wrong!

Notice that dictatorships always collapse in the end. The Communist era went on longer than most. But it was certainly clear, in the end, that these dictators never had the hearts or the minds of the people. They only had their fear.

It’s the same in more personal contexts. You can attempt to cajole, intimidate, “guilt” or otherwise motivate people into doing something they don’t wish or see reason to do. But unless or until they’re rationally persuaded, and internally “own” a conclusion to act a certain way for themselves, nothing will change.

My biggest complaint about my profession is how it exploits this tendency in people to seek to control those they love. The American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual (the latest is called the DSM-V) is one gigantic attempt to medicalize and “disease-label-ize” behaviors, syndromes or patterns of behavior that science has, in large measure, never shown to be medical.

It’s misleading. People outside of my profession are led to believe, “Everything’s a disease. Everything I don’t like in another’s behavior can be changed by a professional.”

It’s magical thinking, and is never going to happen.

The purpose of psychotherapy is not to control other people. It’s to help people become more aware of themselves and, where necessary and desired, to try and change aspects of themselves.

Few things are as arrogant or naïve as a controlling attitude about others. Just as dictators always try and ultimately fail, so will people who think others can be changed against their will through therapy and psychiatry.

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